A family in Boston says they are being discriminated against by a local pool club because of their son’s food allergies.
Erin Brazil and her partner Paul Anthony Campbell have filed a lawsuit against Partners Healthcare Systems, Inc., which owns the Massachusetts General Hospital. The Clubs at Charles River Park, where the pool is located, is the hospital’s wellness center.
Brazil told Allergic Living her family has been spending time during the summers at the pool for the past 14 years. The family rents a private cabana space at the pool, which Brazil takes pains to keep as a peanut-, dairy- and tree nut-free space for Gabriel, her 6-year-old son.
Gabriel has suffered anaphylaxis 14 times and is contact reactive to his allergens. “It’s difficult for him to go many places. He has become accustomed to being excluded from things,” says Brazil.
But at the pool club, his family and his “summer friends” keep him safe, and he’s able to enjoy his time there carefree, says his mother.
However, according to the family, tensions grew between Brazil and the facility’s manager last summer when she requested accommodations for her son’s food allergies, such as the lifeguards not eating peanut butter while on duty, and peanut shells being swept up off the pool deck.
The family also noticed that people were sitting at their patio table when they weren’t there, and leaving behind food with dairy and peanuts. At one point, peanut butter was found smeared on her son’s toys kept in the private cabana area and peanut shells were littered on the chairs, which the family felt was a deliberate act.
“I had asked if they [the club] could monitor the renter-only space, but it wasn’t done,” says Brazil.
Brazil then put up signs stating her cabana was free of peanuts, tree nuts and dairy, but management repeatedly took them down, saying such notices didn’t fit with the aesthetics of the club.
“At the end of the summer last year, there was some visible frustration or annoyance when I would make some request. I felt like the manager was getting fed up with me and the food allergy situation,” says Brazil.
Still, the family left their belongings in their cabana at the end of the summer, expecting to be back the following year.
That all changed during the rental renewal process this spring, when the manager got involved and said the family would not be allowed back. “I got an email from him that said, ‘We’re not renting your cabana anymore because of these reasons.’ And he cited some very minor reasons, such as not putting my grill in front of my cabana at night time and something about dimming the lights,” says Brazil.
After attempting to work things out with the facility, the family hired attorney Laurel Francoeur, whose practice has a special interest in food allergies. Francoeur has filed a complaint that says the family is facing disability discrimination which violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws.
Allergic Living contacted Partners Healthcare Systems for a comment on the case, but has not heard back. However, one pool employee, who did not wish to be named, contacted Allergic Living to express doubts about the allergy issue as the key reason the family was denied club renewal. He claims that Brazil has been a difficult and confrontational member. “Staff has routinely complained to management about her over the way she treats them,” he said.
However, Francoeur says: “We feel it’s a form of retaliation against the family because they spoke out and asked for protection for their son.” She plans to move for a temporary restraining order that would prohibit the club from renting the cabana to another party until the issue is resolved. There is a years-long waiting list for a cabana, and if the family loses theirs, they would be placed at the bottom of that list.
“We’re hoping that Partners will be reasonable and will realize that what they are doing is wrong and they will let my clients rent the cabana as they’ve done peacefully for the last several years,” says Francoeur. “However, if they don’t then we’re going to have to litigate the issue.”
Francoeur says she has also filed a complaint with the Department of Justice civil rights unit, and it is conducting its own investigation.
“It’s just sad that this is what a 6-year-old has to encounter when all he wants to do is enjoy the benefits of the pool club,” says the lawyer.